Jesus Christ is the Way – Part 1

Part 1 of 2.

Editors Note: Transcripts for part 2 will be forthcoming – however you may watch both keynote lectures through the videos below. Unfortunately, we do not have video for Dr. James Edwards’s first presentation, we apologize for any inconvenience.

Dr. James Edwards keynote lecture at TM 2020.

“I am the way, the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). This most famous declaration from the Gospel of John is the first and only time the Fourth Gospel uses the word “way” with reference to Jesus. Each of the Synoptic Gospels uses the word “way” roughly twenty times—sixty times total––but the three uses of “way” in Jesus’s conversation with Thomas (vv. 4, 5, & 6) are its only occurrences in the Gospel of John. John’s reference to Jesus as the way, as we shall see, is of strategic importance. 

I wish to focus on two essential elements of Jesus as the way in John 14:6. First, I propose that John does not present way, truth, and life as three independent virtues in this verse, but rather as characteristics of Jesus. Jesus Christ is the way, the truth, and the life. Second, I propose that John 14:1–6 is not primarily an assurance of the future glory of the disciples in the Father’s mansion “there and then,” but an exhortation to prepare the disciples for the fulfillment of their mission and commission here and now.

Jesus is the Way

“Jesus said, ‘I am the way, the truth, and the life.’” In John 14:6, Jesus does not name way, truth, and life as three, independent, stand-alone virtues. Way is not a wise course of action, truth a self-evident verity, life an autonomous and pleasing form of existence. Way, truth, and life are not presented in John 14:6 as virtues unto themselves. Nor does the way itself refer to a path of moral responsibility and action, as it often does in the Torah and Wisdom literature. When Jesus declares, “I am the way, the truth, and the life,” he declares that the way, truth, and life to which he refers exist only in relation to himself. John 14:6 is not interested in the significance of the way, truth, and life apart from their relationship to Jesus. Jesus is all-determinative for their understanding. In John 14:3, Jesus promises the disciples, “I shall receive you to myself.”  In John 14:6a, Jesus defines “I am the way,” by declaring, “No one comes to the Father except through me.”  In John 14, the way, truth, and life are defined by Jesus.

Nor are way, truth, and life simply like three arrows in a quiver, each equally deft. They are not like Moses’s three signs before Pharaoh—turning his staff into a snake, making his hand leprous, and making blood from water of the Nile—each equally effective. Jesus could not have combined way, truth, and life in different order to the same effect. “Way” is connected to “truth” and “life,” of course, but it does not bear equal weight and value. “Way” is not simply the first of three equal terms, but the principal term that defines and determines the other two. The context of Jesus’s immortal statement, “I am the way, the truth, and the life,” accents way rather than truth and life. The question of Thomas immediately preceding, “How are we to know the way?” (v. 5), is about the “way.” The second half of verse 6 is also about a “way”: “no one comes to the father except through me.” The context of John 14:6 seems clear: Jesus is the way in so far as he is the truth and the life; or, conversely, because Jesus is the truth and the life, he is the way![i]

According to Genesis 3:24, God sealed off the “way to the tree of life” in Eden after the sin of Adam and Eve.  Jesus now reopens the way to Life in himself. In fact, he is the way. “There is only one true way to the Father that leads to truth and life, the way of Jesus.”[ii] 

A “way” is more than an idea, a feeling, or a possibility.  Ideas, feelings, and possibilities have roles to play in theology, of course. The idea of the Trinity is essential to Christianity, the Good Samaritan was moved by his feelings for the man who fell among thieves to render aid, and some doctrines of the church, purgatory and psychopannychism (soul sleep), for example, exist as theological possibilities. “Way” cannot be reduced to an idea, feeling, and possibility, however. 

In John 14:6, Jesus is preparing the disciples for his departure from them. They have never before experienced, or even contemplated, life and ministry apart from him. The disciples are facing distress and fear, just as people in our pews and ministers in our presbyteries face distress and fear. We render needy brothers and sisters no assistance when we couch the gospel in equivocations and hypotheticals and possibi-lities. When you face a firing squad, fairy tales are of no help. Reducing the gospel to concepts and abstractions when addressing people in earnest need is not helpful either. Jesus speaks to the distress of the disciples concretely:“I am the way, the truth, and the life.”

A “way” is a concrete term, referring to a road or path or course of action. It exists, and one participates in its existence actively. In most situations of crises, we want to do something, we want to act. “I am the way, the truth, and the life” takes those deeply seated intuitions seriously and speaks to them. 

The essence of John 14:6 is thus Jesus as the way. We are so familiar with John 14:6 that we may fail to recognize, or forget, that no one in the Old Testament, indeed in the long history of Israel, claimed to be “the way.” Moses does not say, “I am the way.” Neither of the two great Seers of the Old Testament, Melchizedek nor Elijah, says “I am the way.” No prophet, priest, or king in Israel says, “I am the way.” The closest analogy is the claim of Jewish rabbis that “Torah is the way to life.”  Even this is not quite the same, however, for Jesus does not claim to be the way to life, i.e., he is not the means to an end. As the “way,” Jesus is both means and end. Similar to the declaration in John 10:9, “I am the gate to the sheepfold,” Jesus does not claim to be a gate leading somewhere, but the gateway itself. Here, too, Jesus is “the way, the truth, and the life.” 

But how, specifically, is Jesus the way?  It is not without significance that the greater part of the disciples’ relationship with Jesus in the Gospels takes place “on the way.” Jesus and the disciples cross the Sea of Galilee, they hike to Nazareth, they trek to Jerusalem.

“The way” is not an incidental or accidental theme in the Gospels and Acts. Jesus reveals himself as Messiah on theway to Caesarea Philippi (Mark 8:27–30). He reveals himself to blind Bartimaeus (Mark 10:46–52) and to the woman at the well (John 4) traveling to and from Jerusalem. Philip approaches the Ethiopian eunuch “on the way.” When the eunuch asked Philip to “show him the way” in order to understand Isaiah 53, Philip “proclaimed to him the good news of Jesus” (Acts 8:35).  Jesus was the Way. 

Jesus reveals himself as the Way in our lives as well, for our ways are also determined by him. It is no coincidence, says Karl Barth, that in John 14:6 “Jesus calls himself absolutely ‘the Way,’ and thus the Truth and the Life.”  For Barth, the Way is the Truth of God’s self-revelation and the Life of God’s salvation.[iii]

Thomas à Kempis captures the significance of the Way in his meditation on John 14:6 thus: “Without the Way, there is no going; without the Truth, there is no knowing; without the Life, there is no living. I am the Way you ought to follow. … I am the inviolable and straight Way.  … If you remain in my Way, you shall know the Truth, and the Truth will make you free, and you shall lay hold of eternal Life.”[iv]

If there is an absolute equation of Jesus as the way, truth, and life for believers, should there not be an absolute equation of Jesus as the way, truth, and life for the church as well? The church is not the way, the truth, and the life. Jesus Christ is the way, the truth, and the life. Why is it, then, that in the present hour the church in America is so often identified, and allows itself to be identified, by “ways” other than Jesus Christ?  

“White American evangelicals” are widely profiled today as Christians who elevate nationalism over the gospel, who champion xenophobia, who privilege forces of autocracy over the common good, and who are indifferent to morality in its most elemental forms—sexual morality, truth-telling, compassion for the needy, care for the environment, and love of others. 

Liberals or “progressives” are widely profiled today as Christians who define morality in social rather than in personal terms, who champion “human rights” for some, but not for the most vulnerable and innocent of all, the unborn; whose commitment to “identity” threatens to render salvation and oneness in Christ subservient to gender, sexual preference, race, and ethnicity.  

Tertullian said of Christians of his day, “See how they love one another, how they are ready to die for each other.” Of unbelievers, Tertullian said, “See how they hate one another, how they are ready to kill each other.”[v]

Tertullian’s profile of unbelievers, sadly and ironically, often characterizes believers in America today.  Conservatives and progressives, right and left, have hardened into uncharitable and vindictive “blocs.” At the 2020 National Prayer Breakfast, Arthur Brooks challenged the church not to succumb to “our toxic environment of contempt and polarization.” We have elevated causes to the status of the gospel, and our greatest causes have become demigods. The Scriptures teach, and all our creeds confess, “The Lord our God, he is God, and there is no other besides him” (Deut. 4:35).  We have allowed, and continue to allow, other orders and ideologies and political positions to supersede that claim. When good causes, even the best of causes, replace the Great Commission, the church ceases to be the church of Jesus Christ. “Hirelings” commandeer the sheep for purposes other than those of the Good Shepherd, and then abandon them (John 10:11–13). The Good Shepherd does not abandon the sheep. Jesus has no other purpose than his Way in this world, and he calls the church, “Follow Thou Me.” 

Let us not forget the hostility and malice that Jesus faced in his ministry. In Nazareth—Jesus’s hometown––“the wrathful crowd brought Jesus to the brow of a hill, to throw him off to his death.  … But Jesus walked through the midst of them and went on his way” (Luke 4:28–30).  “Jesus walked through the midst of them and went on his way.” Is this perhaps God’s word to the church in America today—to follow Jesus as the way, the truth, and the life through the midst of wrathful crowds and rhetoric today? 

Jesus is the Way in this World 

“Jesus said, ‘I am the way, the truth, and the life.’”  The second claim I wish to make regarding John 14:6 is that it is directed primarily to present mission and only secondarily to future glory. John 14:6 occurs in Jesus’s Farewell Discourse to the disciples. The disciples are aware of the terrifying prospect of a Roman execution, and they are frightened. Given that context, when Jesus says that his Father’s house has many rooms, and that he goes to his Father’s house to prepare a place for his disciples, his disciples may have imagined that Jesus intended to take them out of this world. 

This is almost certainly not the purpose, or at least the primary purpose, of John 14:1–6. Jesus does not speak of going to his Father’s heavenly mansion for his own personal reward. He goes there, rather, to prepare an eternal place for hisdisciples(John 14:2–3) so that they will not be separated from him. Where he is, there too they shall be. This promise assures the disciples that their future is Jesus’s responsibility, not their own. Because Jesus is the pioneer of their eternal salvation, they do not need to concern themselves with anything other than being faithful to his present will for them.  Jesus will prepare a place for them, he will receive them to himself, and they will be with him forever (John 14:3; John 12:26; 17:24). The purpose of this promise is not to direct their gaze longingly to the future, but to assure the disciples that nothing in heaven or on earth can separate them from the love of God and the presence of Jesus. The veil over the end of the human story—their human story—is parted in this promise and the disciples see the word and will of God for what it is and must be: the victory and vindication of God’s will and way, the glory of the Lamb and his sheep. 

The purpose of John 14:6 is thus not to forsake the great commission for the Blessed Hope, but rather to assure believers of the Blessed Hope so that they may be empowered and emboldened in the Great Commission. John 14:1–6 is a pastoral and prophetic word to the disciples.  The heavenly promise of Jesus frees believers and the church from anxiety. Jesus tells both believers and the church the outcome of the story of salvation history to which they have been called, in which they have been commissioned. The outcome is a comedy, not a tragedy, a story that begins in crisis but ends in glory.  The ending is the best of all possible endings—God’s holy and gracious will prevails, entirely and forever. 

This promise transforms and empowers both believers and the church to be about the work to which God appoints them in this world.  God does not receive Jesus into his heavenly glory to stop his work of redemption in this world, but to continue it through the church in ways that it could not achieve until the sending of the Holy Spirit as the divine comforter, advocate, and inspiration. 

When we believe that Jesus has secured the future, then we can be responsible and effective in the work to which he has called us in his world. “Truly, truly I tell you, whoever believes in me does the works that I also do, and even greater works he will do, because I am going to the Father” (John 14:12). 

When we believe that Jesus has secured the future, then we are spiritually equipped to keep his commandments in this world. “If you love me, keep my commandments” (John 14:15).

When we believe that Jesus has secured the future, then we may participate in the Holy Spirit’s restoration of this world. “I shall ask the Father and he will give another Advocate to you, who will be with you forever, the Spirit of Truth, which the world is not able to receive, because it neither sees nor knows it; but you know the Spirit because the Spirit remains with you and in you” (John 14:16–17). As the Father sent the Son into the world, so Jesus sends believers into the world.  “As you have sent me into the world, dear Father, so I also send them into the world” (John 17:18). 

Jesus does not take believers out of the world, but keeps them in his name in the world. “I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you.  Holy Father, keep them in your name!” (John 17:11).

Jesus does not take believers out of the world, but keeps them from the evil one. “I do not ask you, Father, to take them out of this world, but to keep them from the evil one” (John 17:15).

Jesus wills for his believers to be free in this world, because the Truth sets them free. “Sanctify them in the Truth; your word is Truth” (John 17:17).


James Edwards
James Edwards
Dr. James R. Edwards, Ph.D., is the Bruner-Welch Professor Emeritus of Theology at Whitworth University.

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